Ten Gardening Tips to Conserve Water

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Take these simple steps to reduce water waste and prevent your yard from getting parched.

The concept of living through a drought has been on repeat my entire life growing up in San Diego. It is ingrained in me to turn the water off when I brush my teeth or wash dishes. A rogue lawn being watered in the middle of the day sends shivers down my spine. This is a part of our lives, and with our Earth in crisis, it will likely always be. For those of us who love to garden in drought-ridden zones like San Diego (growing zone 10a/b), here are some simple water-wise gardening tips we can take to conserve water and still grow food and flowers year-round.

1. Plant drought-tolerant and native species

This doesn’t just mean cacti and succulents. A huge benefit to planting native Californian species is they are often drought tolerant and have adapted to our specific growing environment, from hot, dry summers to mild winters. Once established, many can thrive with very little water beyond rainfall. Additionally, they add to our biodiversity and attract native wildlife and insects that rely on these plants. An additional benefit is that once established, a native landscape can be relatively low maintenance.

2. Collect rainwater

Divert the rain from your roof with a harvesting system. These can range from a professionally installed system to a simple rain barrel, bucket, or trash can placed below a drain pipe or at a strategic corner to collect runoff. Just make sure to cover your collected water to prevent mosquitos.

3. Reuse water in your home

Freeze! Before you pour your pot of water from cooking pasta, steaming veggies or boiling eggs down the sink, let it sit on the stove and cool. When you water your houseplants, place them in a large plastic container first to catch what drains off. You can collect water while washing fruits and veggies too. Use a bucket to collect sink and shower water while you are waiting for it to heat up. Now serve up all this water to the thirsty friends in your garden. 

4. Remove lawns

According to the EPA, the average American household uses roughly 320 gallons of water a day with about 30 percent being used outdoors, and roughly half of that is used to water lawns and gardens. Removing your lawn and replacing it with gravel, mulch, a pollinator or native garden, or using it to grow your own food, transforms your water usage to more productive means and helps connect your yard to the wider ecosystem.

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5. Use drip irrigation

Reduce waste by watering your plants, veggies, and flowers directly at the soil line with a drip system, soaker hoses, or misters. This reduces water evaporation, overwatering, and runoff. For parched trees and large shrubs, you can bury a pipe vertically (or even dig a hole) or use a watering stake a few inches away to create a deep watering system that directly targets the roots — this is perfect for pouring collected water from indoors.

6. Install ollas

Olla means pot in Spanish and is often used for cooking. An unglazed clay container can be used in the garden to passively water your plants. These have been used all around the world throughout history to aid irrigation. You simply bury the olla, fill it up with water, and place a lid on it to prevent evaporation. The dry soil surrounding the olla will pull the water through the clay pores using soil moisture tension. When the soil is moist, the water will stay in the olla until it is needed. The roots of the surrounding plants will eventually grow toward and around the olla. Check it every few days and fill up as needed. This system is great for raised beds and grow bags, and can be a less costly irrigation option. You can buy ollas or make your own with clay pots. Check out San Diegan @gardentotablewithcass on making your own ollas.

7. Mulch! All the mulch!

Mulch protects the soil from water evaporation. Additionally, as it breaks down, it adds organic matter and nutrients back into your soil and is a great weed barrier. Depending on your resources and aesthetics, mulch can be wood chips, compost, straw, crushed leaves, or chopped-up weeds (prior to them going to seed). 

8. Manage your irrigation system

If you notice water runoff from your yard or garden, try reducing your cycles and watering more frequently. For example, instead of running irrigation for fifteen minutes, try three cycles of five minutes at different times in the day, so the ground has time to absorb. Be mindful of when you water, and avoid watering in the heat of the day. Watering in the morning or early evening gives the water more time to absorb into the soil and root systems and not evaporate right away. Also, turn off your irrigation when anticipating rain, and if you need to make repairs. You can always switch to hand watering until you can fix a leak.

9. Add organic matter

Compost and soil amendments help increase moisture retention in clay and sand-heavy soils. The compost can help aerate and increase the soil’s ability to retain water, decreasing runoff. An added benefit is your veggies, flowers, and plants will be super happy with the added nutrients. Even better, start home composting your food and green waste for your garden! You save money on buying compost and keep organic waste out of landfills.

10. Do not overwater 

Check the soil before watering and develop a schedule, but be mindful to alter that schedule based on weather conditions. Most gardens, with the proper irrigation, can be watered deeply two to three times a week. Drought-tolerant and native gardens will need even less!


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Laura McLean
Laura McLean
Laura McLean is a native San Diegan who is the plant expert co-owner of Sweet Seedlings, and has spent over 20 years working for a nonprofit and as a marriage and family therapist. She has transformed her yard into an urban vegetable and pollinator garden, and strives to connect mental health, self-care, and a commitment to our earth with every seed she sows.
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